"For once the rich white man is in control!" Mr. Burns, incomparable plutocratic sniveler voiced by the real star of "The Simpsons Movie," Harry Shearer, hasn't much screen time in this adaptation — a good one; a little disappointing, but good — of the animated television series created by Matt Groening. But Shearer does get to snivel that line, one of many lines by 11 credited writers that does its job, deftly, and then skitters out of the way for the next one.
At its best, the 87-minute film directed by series long-timer David Silverman works in a loose, inspired way as opposed to a reliable, well-carpentered way, recalling the prime early years of the series, when the blizzard of in-jokes and the hailstorm of out-jokes, the ultraviolent slapstick and the precious deadpan verbal mutterings conspired to make "The Simpsons" something formidable and a little terrifying.
No modern series has had a more profound influence on the quality of TV comedy. No great television comedy stoked a nation's merry despair with better zingers and quicker-witted, corner-of-the-eye detail. The downside is that when a strictly mercantile entertainment transaction such as "Shrek the Third" comes along, nearly a generation after Springfield's finest were introduced, you can blame the higher (maybe the highest) grade of cynicism found in "The Simpsons."
Homer Simpson's oafishness reaches apocalyptic levels in "The Simpsons Movie." The story, on which Groening, James L. Brooks and nine other credited writers labored, is set into motion by Grandpa's religious visions, Homer's adopting a pet pig, and Lisa's being a good little Al Gore and warning of the dangers of polluting the daylights out of the local water supply. Against his non-existent better judgment, Homer ignores his daughter's wisdom, which leads to the Environmental Protection Agency's ordering an emergency lockdown situation per President Arnold Schwarzenegger's approval. (Albert Brooks voices the venal EPA head.)
I suppose the series creators felt a need to go for some bombast in a film version of "The Simpsons," though I found myself slumping a bit during the computer-generated sequences designed to exploit the bigger screen and "deliver." I'm more into the jokes on the fly. "Stop in the name of American squeamishness!" hollers a cop to a naked skateboarding Bart. A throwaway bit about a bomb-detonating robot cracking under pressure adds up to 10 bucks' worth of comedy in 10 seconds of screen time. The hit-and-run jokes targeting the Disney corporation, Fox News crawls and Mitch Albom satisfy one comic craving, while the freshest element in the script — Lisa's crippling crush on an Irish boy who shares her politics and her love of the environment — satisfies a very different and sweeter one. Likewise a snowbound romantic interlude for Homer and Marge (the family's fled to Alaska; no need to know why, really), with Disneyesque forest critters aiding and abetting the hookup, builds easily and fluidly and ends with just the right sight gag.
The previews for "The Simpsons Movie" lean heavily on Homer's falling through roofs and getting banged around by wrecking balls. The previews aren't lying. This sort of lumpen slapstick grows wearying, and there are times (as has been the case in certain lesser cycles of the TV series) when the film appears to have been directed by Itchy and Scratchy. In the end Silverman and Groening and Brooks figure out a way to appeal to a wide variety of "Simpson" fans, rabid and casual alike. If that sounds slightly compromised, well ... I only wish the creators could've managed a miracle and come up with a feature on the order of the "South Park" movie, "Bigger, Longer & Uncut," which amazed fans and newbies alike with its satiric nerve (not to mention the songs). "The Simpsons Movie" is comparatively minor. But it's hard not to like it. And in both senses of the phrase, America keeps asking for it.